The Contrasting Legacies of Two Figures in Africa’s Oil Industry

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Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and Nigeria’s Mohammad Barkindo represented Africa’s largest oil producing nations at various junctures

Two African statesmen passed away last week, both towering figures in the national and in the global energy scene: Mohammad Barkindo of Nigeria, secretary general, aged 63, and former Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, at the age of 79. But their legacies are very different: one constructive, one troubled.

Appropriately, Mr. dos Santos studied petroleum engineering in the Soviet oil capital of Baku, now Azerbaijan. His first wife, a Russian chess champion Tatiana Kukanova, was the mother of his daughter Isabel. He became president as a compromise candidate in 1979, only four years after Angola’s independence from Portugal.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Mr. Dos Santos changed the ruling party’s ideology from Marxist-Leninism to free market and notional social democracy. By 2002, he finally won the interminable civil war against the American and Apartheid Africa-backed, anti-communist UNITA.

Angola had produced oil offshore the northern exclave of Cabinda since the late 1960s. But between 1995 and 1998, new three-dimensional seismic acquisition and deep-water drilling unlocked a string of massive discoveries by Total, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and others.

With Nigeria, this made West Africa the third vertex of the “golden triangle” for deep-water exploration between Brazil and the US’s Gulf of Mexico.

By 2010, the country had vaulted to Africa’s second-largest producer. It was often the second-biggest supplier of oil to China. The economy boomed and state oil company, Sonangol became a significant international investor, cropping up oddly in oilfields in northern Iraq.

Isabel Dos Santos, whose husband died in a diving accident in Dubai in October 2020, became Sonangol’s chairperson, and Africa’s richest woman, with an estimated $3 billion fortune. Jose Filomeno dos Santos, son of the president, was made head of the sovereign wealth fund. Little of the oil wealth trickled down to ordinary Angolans.

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The seeds of decline were already sprouting. The chain of big new discoveries was broken; poor financial terms and lengthy wrangles with investors stalled new field developments.

Production last year was 38% down on its 2008 high, and Angola has been the biggest contributor to the OPEC+ group’s shortfall on output targets. A liquefied natural gas plant started up in 2013 to export previous wasted gas from oil production, but its performance has been patchy.

Mr. Dos Santos stepped down in 2017 in favour of a hand-picked successor, Joao Lourenco. Mr. Lourenco estimated that $24billion was lost to corruption under Mr. dos Santos’s tenure, and has launched an anti-corruption campaign, jailing Jose Filomeno for five years, and freezing Isabel’s assets.

But he has faced accusations that these moves are more about redistributing patronage to his own supporters.

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Jose Eduardo Dos Santos

Mr. Lourenco faces a general on August 24. He looks likely to win, and recent high oil prices have eased pressure on the economy. Mr. Dos Santos rode the oil wave to a long period of stability, but Angola needs to move on from his legacy.

Mr. Barkindo’s story is very different. From the other African oil behemoth, Nigeria, he had a career in his country’s from 1982 onwards. He was a Nigerian delegate to in 1986, before serving two three-year terms at the helm of the Vienna-based organisation, starting in August 2016.

The secretary general of has the power to conciliate and mediate rather than dictate. Secretary generals have generally not been from the organisation’s leading producers: not since 1967 has a Saudi, Iranian or Iraqi held the post.

Mr. Barkindo carried out this role ideally. He was outspoken on the need for more investment in the petroleum industry, and advocated its importance in the face of proponents of a speedy abandonment of oil and gas. He himself had led Nigeria’s technical delegations to UN climate conferences.

The key achievement of his tenure, though, was the Declaration of Co-operation with Russia and other important non- producers in December 2016, forming the alignment now usually referred to as OPEC+. This followed the price crash of late 2014 and a bruising struggle for market share.

The timing was propitious: Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali Al Naimi, author of the kingdom’s strategy, was replaced in May 2016. Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, had concluded co-operation with was essential and won debates with others in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who opposed curbs on Russian oil output.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barkindo’s diplomacy, perhaps informed by his favourite poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, was essential in bringing all sides together. This was a huge strategic realignment; Moscow had never seriously co-operated with Vienna before, while Saudi Arabia and other leading players had concluded they should not take on Russian and US shale simultaneously.

He then carried out a reprise in April 2020, when OPEC+ was in danger of falling apart in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unprecedently deep production cuts were agreed, helping to revive oil prices.

Mr. Barkindo was about to take up a position at the Atlantic Council think tank. Shortly before his death from a heart attack, he had given an address in the Nigerian capital Abuja, in which he touched on his favourite industry themes, and commended his successor, Kuwait’s Haitham Al Ghais, who would have taken over on August 1.

It is a pity that Mr. Barkindo did not have the opportunity to do more for the turbulent of his home country.

One of these two African oil leaders had left the public stage at the time of his death; the other was opening a new chapter. One ruled at home, leaving an imposing but troubled legacy; the other’s greatest impact was on the international stage.

From a continent whose people too rarely benefit from their natural resources, Mr. Barkindo’s example is markedly inspiring.

Robin M. Mills (The National UAE)


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